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Thursday, July 31, 2014, 1:05 a.m.
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Nemo Vista girls win Class 1A state basketball title

By Donna Lampkin Stephens/Contributing Writer

This article was published May 8, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

NEMO VISTA — Life intruded on basketball season at Nemo Vista this year, making the Lady Red Hawks’ unexpected first-ever state title even more precious.

Kyle Payne’s team finished 33-6 after a 37-32 win over rival Wonderview in the Class 1A State Championship at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena.

Amid the joy, triumph and sense of accomplishment of the season were also loss, grief and pain.

Early in the season, the small school was rocked by the death of a seventh-grade player. Sophia Andrews died in an ATV accident in September. Tragedy struck again during the 1A-5 North District Tournament in February with the unexpected death of Cameron Chancellor, a junior on the boys team whose girlfriend, Chase Paladino, was a sophomore on the Lady Red Hawks squad. An undiagnosed heart condition was responsible for Chancellor’s death.

“The night before we were going to play in the district finals against Wonderview, we got a call about 2 in the morning,” Payne said. “We were on cloud nine after getting in the final, and then that sudden tragic loss — nothing foreseen at all.

“They were already playing for [Andrews], and then this happened. They just all rallied together and behind Chase, and everybody played for [Chancellor]. It added a lot of emotion and gave everybody a little extra something to play for.”

Paladino remembered Chancellor telling her after the Lady Red Hawks won their district semifinal game over Mount Vernon-Enola that they were going to win state. He died that night.

“I didn’t believe him,” she said. “When we did [win state], I was happy and sad at the same time. It was a happy moment but also sad, knowing that they weren’t there.”

After losing to Wonderview twice in the regular season, the Lady Red Hawks held off their grief to beat the Lady Daredevils

for the district title and, the following week, for the Region 3 championship. The two conference foes met again for the state title at Hot Springs, and Nemo Vista won its third straight in the series after losing two in the regular season by an average of 15 points.

“When we won it all, it was just emotional,” Payne said. “It was huge for the girls. They felt like the world was lifted off them. I felt that way, too.

“It was good to get it for them, for the community, for everybody.”

The Lady Red Hawks started the season with a roster of just eight — including no seniors — but lost a couple of sophomore guards for the season when Ashton Andrews tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the fifth game of the season and Heather Kyle suffered a similar injury just after the Christmas break.

How did the remaining six practice?

“Very carefully,” Payne said, chuckling. “We did a lot of picturing the other team out there. We used managers.”

Help came following the end of the junior high season when Payne was able to move up six players to the varsity squad — doubling his roster. Ironically, a seventh freshman, Candace Gottsponer, had also suffered an ACL injury during the junior high season.

“We could actually practice five-on-five,” Payne said of the reboot.

Nemo Vista finished third in the conference race behind Wonderview and Mount Vernon-Enola, but bolstered by the freshmen, the Lady Red Hawks swept all three tournaments in the postseason.

“That was the addition of the ninth-graders,” Payne said. “They made us a completely different team. They got to play 10 games with us.”

He said he hadn’t expected this team to go so far.

“With a team this young, I wanted them to get to the state tournament, make a showing, maybe get one win, and I thought that would be a pretty successful year, knowing we were going to be all sophomores, one junior and bringing up freshmen,” he said. “I thought we were about two years away from making a deep run.

“In the regional tournament, though, it hit me that we might have a chance this year.”

In the state tournament, Nemo Vista beat Western Grove, 48-20; Bradley, 41-38, in the quarterfinals; and Kirby, 49-33, in the semifinals. In the championship against Wonderview, the Lady Red Hawks led after one quarter, 9-6; and at halftime, 17-8, before the Lady Daredevils tied the game after three quarters. Paladino earned MVP honors with a 14-point, 9-rebound performance. She hit a pair of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.

“The younger ones were nervous, but I don’t get nervous,” she said.

Payne wasn’t surprised by her performance.

“Chase has always been a gamer,” he said. “You’ve got the game on the line, you want the ball in her hands. She always rises up. She doesn’t shy away from pressure. She hit big shots for us all year long, and she did it again when it mattered most.”

Payne, who graduated from Sacred Heart in 2005 and Arkansas Tech in 2009, is in his fifth season at Nemo Vista. He was hired as baseball coach and assisted the boys basketball program for two years, added assistant girls duties during his third year and took the helm of the girls program in 2012-13. He coaches seventh-grade girls and boys, junior and senior girls and baseball, and is also in his second year as athletic director.

The aftermath of the state championship, he said, was “shocking.”

“We didn’t know what to say, but it was over, and the pressure was gone,” he said. “We sat back in shock and thought, ‘Did this really happen?’”

Paladino said all the emotions made the accomplishment all the more special.

“I had experienced the worst moment of my life and then the best moment, all in the same few weeks,” she said. “It was mixed emotions, I guess.”

Even weeks later, Payne can’t explain how life and basketball intersected in so many sweet, sad, poignant ways.

And that’s OK.

It’s almost as if the Lady Red Hawks had some extra help along the way.

“Yeah,” he said. “Absolutely.”

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